Using Thesis Statements

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

When you are asked to write an essay that creates an argument, your reader will probably expect a clear statement of your position. Typically, this summary statement comes in the first paragraph of the essay, though there is no rigid rule about position. Here are some characteristics of good thesis statements, with samples of good and poor ones. Note that the better examples substitute specific argumentative points for sweeping general statements; they indicate a theoretical basis and promise substantial support. (See Some Myths About Thesis Statements, below, for a discussion of times not to use a thesis statement. See also the file General Advice on Essay Writing.)

1. It makes a definite and limited assertion that needs to be explained and supported by further discussion:

trite, irrelevant Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright.
intriguing The success of the last scene in Midsummer Night’s Dream comes from subtle linguistic and theatrical references to Elizabeth’s position as queen.

2. It shows the emphasis and indicates the methodology of your argument:

emotional, vague This essay will show that the North American Free Trade agreement was a disaster for the Canadian furniture industry.
worth attention Neither neo-protectionism nor post-industrial theory explains the steep reversal of fortune for the Canadian furniture industry in the period 1988-1994. Data on productivity, profits, and employment, however, can be closely correlated with provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect in the same period.

3. It shows awareness of difficulties and disagreements:

sweeping, vague Having an official policy on euthanasia just causes problems, as the Dutch example shows.
suitably complex Dutch laws on euthanasia have been rightly praised for their attention to the principles of self-determination. Recent cases, however, show that they have not been able to deal adequately with issues involving technological intervention of unconscious patients. Hamarckian strategies can solve at least the question of assignation of rights.

Some Myths about Thesis Statements

  • Every paper requires one. Assignments that ask you to write personal responses or to explore a subject don’t want you to seem to pre-judge the issues. Essays of literary interpretation often want you to be aware of many effects rather than seeming to box yourself into one view of the text.
  • A thesis statement must come at the end of the first paragraph. This is a natural position for a statement of focus, but it’s not the only one. Some theses can be stated in the opening sentences of an essay; others need a paragraph or two of introduction; others can’t be fully formulated until the end.
  • A thesis statement must be one sentence in length, no matter how many clauses it contains. Clear writing is more important than rules like these. Use two or three sentences if you need them. A complex argument may require a whole tightly-knit paragraph to make its initial statement of position.
  • You can’t start writing an essay until you have a perfect thesis statement. It may be advisable to draft a hypothesis or tentative thesis statement near the start of a big project, but changing and refining a thesis is a main task of thinking your way through your ideas as you write a paper. And some essay projects need to explore the question in depth without being locked in before they can provide even a tentative answer.
  • A thesis statement must give three points of support. It should indicate that the essay will explain and give evidence for its assertion, but points don’t need to come in any specific number.